Like a Little Stone
Like a little stone, feel the shadow of the great earth;
let distance pierce you till you cling to trees.
That the world may be all the same,
close your eyes till everything is,
and the farthest sand can vote.
Making the world be big by hunting its opposite,
go out gleaning for lost lions
that are terrified by valleys of still lambs,
for hummingbirds that dream before each wingbeat,
for the mole that met the sun.
If time won’t let a thing happen, hurry there,
to the little end of the cone that darkness bends.
Any place where you turn but might have gone on,
all possibilities need you there.
The centers of stones need your prayers.
William Stafford was a contrarian. A conscientious objector during World War II, he spent four years doing heavy labor in government work camps. I love how this contrary little poem makes itself huge with contrasts and contradictions, leaping about, molting its metaphors from line to line, telescoping time and space. It is an instance of its own advice: “Any place where you turn but might have gone on, all possibilities need you there.”
The poem is in the imperative voice, but what it commands is beneficent, liberating and outrageous: go hunting for opposites, for things that can’t happen, or aren’t supposed to happen. Close your eyes to familiar reality so that other realities, other orders of meaning, can appear. It asks us to feel the world’s infinitude, and our own insignificance—and suggests that in our insignificance we may find the seeds of a culture transformed. If we can be genuinely humble, perhaps we can recognize the high and mighty not only as oppressors, but as “lost lions that are terrified by valleys of still lambs.” Stafford wrote fifty years ago, but it is an apt image as we contemplate the warlords and tycoons of the current age.
The poem beckons us not just to see a different reality, but to undertake things never done before: “If time won’t let a thing happen, hurry there. . .” If the hummingbird has time to dream before each wingbeat, then we have time to do the impossible. How? By attending to the smallest and most obscure of things, “the little end of the cone that darkness bends.” Any fresh, intimate, authentic doing opens a new worldspace that, by some paradoxical alchemy, sanctifies the whole of animate and inanimate existence.
Even the stones need our prayers.